My dear, dear friend and amazing illustrator, Kary Lee, thought I should know Annette Pimentel and so she cyber-introduced us. Annette also shares a passion for historical fiction and I found the title (and topic) of the book she is introducing us to today fascinating:Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook up the National Park Service (Charlesbridge, 2016). Take it away, Annette!
After the Story: Constructing Nonfiction Back Matter
My book, Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook up the National Park Service (Charlesbridge), is about a 1915 ten-day wilderness camping trip in the Sierras. It focuses on Tie Sing, the Chinese American trail cook who kept all thirty campers happily fed for the whole trip.
From the beginning, I thought this story was perfect for a picture book—it had a fascinating real life character, a discrete, time-bound event, and a compelling place. As I started the project, I was confident that the natural limitations of a ten-day camping trip would make the story relatively easy to write.
But as I researched, the book sprawled. I learned about the muddy tracks the Chinese Exclusion Act left on the lives of Chinese in America at the turn of the century. I became fascinated by many of the individual campers—the mustachioed movie star who tried to stage-direct unwilling campers; the big-hearted writer who was famous for saving the last wild buffalo and who on this trip cried over the pack mules; the millionaire who couldn’t stop photographing wildflowers. I marveled at the nuts and bolts of 1915 camping—the newfangled air mattresses that took 120 puffs to blow up, and the ingenious newspaper and water replacement for ice chests. It couldn’t all go into the story, but I couldn’t bear to cut it out!
At a nonfiction conference, I heard Charlesbridge editor Alyssa Mito Pusey, who eventually became the editor for this book, talk about the importance of shaping your story and then ruthlessly cutting whatever didn’t belong. But she suggested a strategy for giving up what couldn’t be in the story without having to lose it. She advised us to make a new “Back Matter” document and dump all the extra, fascinating bits there as we revised.
I followed Alyssa’s advice and eventually had a story I loved, focused tightly on Tie Sing and his experiences. But I also had a back matter full of fascinating details. A very, very long back matter. Alyssa agreed that we could use a tiny font for the back matter and she gave me two entire spreads for it. “But we’re still going to have to cut it,” she warned me.
I was faced with a tough question: what belongs in back matter?
I plunged into my favorite nonfiction picture books, examining the back matter. I decided that back matter answers one or more of these questions:
- Can I have more details about what I just read?
- What happened next?
- Why does this matter?
- How did you get interested in the topic?
- How did you research and what were the limitations of your research?
Once I understood the questions I was trying to answer, it was easier to figure out what to cut. Sure, it’s fascinating that one of the campers had been the first to display reconstructed dinosaur skeletons in his New York museum, but as much as I love dinosaurs, that tidbit had nothing to do with this story. Gone.
Thanks to the generous space Alyssa allotted for back matter, I managed to respond to all the standard questions in my back matter, a luxury not every publisher offers. And Charlesbridge arranged for some of the vintage photos I’d used for research to be included, as well as creating a map for the endpapers.
As I’ve traveled to promote the book, I’ve been delighted to find kids and adults who love back matter as much as I do. It’s usually one of the first things people comment on. They tell me that they dig into my back matter for answers to questions and then they ask me new questions that I’d never thought of, ones that push my thinking in new directions.
I love writing nonfiction, adore the process of shaping a piece of history within satisfying borders. But I love nonfiction back matter, too. I love the way back matter bursts those tidy borders and opens the story up again to new questions and to the messy, beautiful entanglements and complications of real life.
Annette lives in Moscow, Idaho, where she writes true stories about real people. Her nonfiction picture book Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook up the National Park Service(Charlesbridge, 2016) won a Eureka! Nonfiction Honor and was named a Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Notable Book. Girl Running (Nancy Paulsen Books), about the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, comes out February 6, 2018. Find out more about her books at www.annettebaypimental.com, or follow her on Twitter @AnnettePimentel